Saturday, March 20, 2021

Elite: Fifty Games

Fifty shooters. I've seen some interesting things, some weird things, but most of all, I've learned that coming first means nothing if the game isn't good...or in English. With the 50th game, I decided to go after something interesting. Elite holds credit as the first big shooter that wasn't connected to the arcades or imitating them. Every game in the series was big, even today, an Elite game remains one of the few space shooters still popular. Thinking about that now, all of those space sims are MMOs, but that's neither here nor there. What is here is Elite, the original BBC Micro game. There are many ports and many remakes, some of which I'll be getting to. Observing the official website alone reveals at least six important editions and two interesting looking unreleased versions.

So, Elite, the granddaddy of space shooters, wide open sandboxes, and 3D graphics. That doesn't really seem impressive to me anymore. I've seen games like that already. They didn't impressive me, but could Elite have what those games lacked? Thrilling gameplay? The ability to fly away from a planet and not get gunned down? As you can tell, I'm not looking forward to this. I played this once when I was young, it was a DOS version, and it didn't leave a good impression on me. Which is why I'm a bit reluctant to start the game.
The game comes with a manual and a novella...which I won't be touching yet. I don't miss novellas. I realize you had to make do in the dark ages before you could fit many words in your video game, but I don't care for having to read that much text before playing a game. Not to mention I don't think highly of game-related fiction. Of course, those are usually not distributed with the games themselves. Ah, but the manual, the manual explains everything to my satisfaction. Don't shoot innocents, police or space stations, otherwise you'll become public enemy no. 1. Further, don't trade illegal goods either. I'm not interested in the bad guy route yet.

The game starts, and I have a Cobra Mk III (not that I can change it), I'm docked at a planet called Lave, I have enough fuel for 7.0 light years of travel, one crappy laser, and 100 credits. I can outfit my ship with many things, but the only things I can really afford are trade goods. There are a lot of screens I don't really understand at the moment, so I'm going to focus on something I can understand. Learning to fly.

Pressing F10 (or whatever its tied to on the BBC Micro) causes the ship to leave the space station to travel. Controls are not very intuitive. S & X move up and down, while , & . spin the ship along the the wings. Like how a plane actually functions. But unlike an airplane, a spaceship doesn't move through the air, so this just causes the ship to rotate weirdly. This never made any sense to me as a kid and now that I'm an adult, going for a realistic space simulation and having the ship function like one designed for the air seems a bad design choice. Babylon 5 did it best when they had their fighters rotate with little jets. Curiously few games seem to acknowledge momentum in their space games, so getting the engine damaged affects your top speed.

Moving around is simple enough, but I want to get good at docking. So I figure out whichever part of the space station I'm supposed to dock at. Its clearly not the rotating parts, so its the "top" or "bottom". This is really hard, least of all because of the station's movement. Crash feedback is not great, and a subtle sign of the game's code. See, this game functions like most games of the era did, the player doesn't technically move, everything around him does. The player also cannot reverse, so bing bang boom, dead.

I manage to get in on the second try. The rotation is actually no problem at all, but a different one arises. The current emulator I'm using, as in the first one that actually works on my machine, is BeebEm. Saving states in BeebEm crashes it and given my lack of familiarity with the game and system, I'm not sure how saving and loading is going to work. The manual says nothing and I don't see any way to save. I tried B-em, but the launch button causes the game to return to the start. So...the BBC Micro version is effectively unplayable. Honestly, it seems like any game I try to play ends up screwing up in one way or another if its more than a few minutes long. That's great. But then I, not really wanting to play a different version just yet vainly try loading it without starting the game...and that works. I'm sure there's a good reason for that.

After a few more attempts, and confident in my abilities to not make a complete hash of things, I purchase some trade goods and set forth on a short journey. My destination, the nearest planet, thus guaranteed to be the least valuable journey ever. Travel occurs, after leaving a space station, by entering the galactic map, pressing G on the destination, then H. This goes off without a hitch, there's nothing near me. I see what seems like a space station, there's nothing else around here, so I approach it, at an angle. The space station's entrance seems to be rotating, but I figure that's just some kind of weird game quirk.

As I do this, someone attacks me. So I begin evasive maneuvers and attempt to return fire. There are two of them, so I try to attack one of them. The chaos that ensues causes me to not be very clear on the events, I destroyed a spaceship...eventually, before I'm killed. Checking the manual again, I realize I was fighting the police...for some reason. I love it when I play a game where I have no real chance of finding my actual enemy.
I'm going to stop here for now, before my frustration gets the better of me. Still, there are positives. I can't think of any space game that doesn't use the same radar this game does. When I was actually fighting something, the game was fun. Its just starting to look like Space Vikings again.

This Session: 50 Minutes

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